he knows. he always knows

Let us get on with the end of Christmas. Today, let us be serious, maybe a little cynical. The key to any Christmas movie, to Christmas itself, is a year-end assessment of the year leading to it. Particularly, the whole naughty/nice thing.

(Meanwhile, by the way, I’ve got the commentary track playing. Director Bob Clark and star Peter Billingsly. Nothing too exciting so far. Currently, after the Black Bart fantasy, Peter is talking about the cut Flash Gordon bit.)

As the year comes to an end, we are told (quite explicitly as children) that someone has been watching us all year. There’s no point in being told this after the fact, of course. What matters is that we have the idea in our heads that someone is watching in the future. Like religion, it keeps us in line because of the idea that someone is keeping track of our actions. In my (2014) piece on Plato’s charioteer, I argued that even the simple dichotomy of angels and demons, in the form of that cartoon image of the two tiny on our shoulders, serves to reinforce our actions toward the good. While, importantly, also reinforcing the idea that we choose to be good. I wrote:

...all of this—the charioteer [from Phaedrus], the shoulder angel, the two wolves [from Cherokee myth]—is just our own internal panopticon keeping us in line because we want to believe there will be some measure put to our choices in the future. Foucault (1979) suggests that we—he refers to “the inmate” but the effect is the same—”must never know whether [we are] being looked at any moment; but [we] must be sure that [we] may always be so” (p. 201). The only reason to ever choose between the good horse and the bad horse, the good wolf and the bad wolf, the shoulder angel and the shoulder devil is that we believe in the existence of moral rightness. This belief presumes that our actions will be weighed by, if not a God or gods, than [sic] by the society around us. The good/bad binary keeps us in line because we believe one option is the correct one. Foucault’s (1979) “guarantee of order” comes from the “invisibility” inherent in narrowing down the panoply of real choices we have to an obvious, and omnipresent, two. (p. 13-14)

Santa Claus is just one way of reinforcing that binary. A recent Washington Post piece (or at least a digital technology professor quoted in the piece) argued that the elf on the shelf “reif[ies] hegemonic power” (Holley, 2014). While I had heard of the Elf on the Shelf when this piece came up, I wasn’t entirely familiar with the concept. So, I looked it up. According to its website, elfontheshelf.com, the Elf on the Shelf comes from a children’s book about Santa’s scout elves. Apparently, the story did not creep people out enough to not also buy little elf dolls (apparently, one comes with the book, but there is other Elf on the Shelf merchandise available) to leave around the house. There’s also a “Teacher Resource Center” for using the Elf on the Shelf in the classroom.

(First really notable bit from the commentary track: Jean Shepherd was in talks to do the voiceover for The Wonder Years at one point. I’m guessing that, had that gone through, he would have had some say on the tone of that show even if only through the quality of his voiceover, so that might have been a very different show.)

This is in an age when we let our phone track our location so we can tag instagram photos and tweets so everyone knows what we are doing at that location. The police state thing that Pinto and Nemorin (2014) get at might beg some questions, but it isn’t necessarily far off. Holley makes sure to point out that Pinto, who he talked to on the phone, “comes across as extremely friendly and not at all paranoid... She’s also completely serious.” Pinto and Nemorin write:

The immense impact of play in how children make sense of their world, their place in society, and their identity, and what is right and wrong has been well-documented. Play comes in a variety of forms and involves many different types of activities; children may role-play and interact with other people, or they may interact with things (toys or other objects), or a combination of both. In the course of play, children practice all sorts of social and cognitive activities, such as exercising self-control, testing and developing what they already know, cooperating and socializing, symbolizing and/or using objects in ways that are meaningful and exciting to them.

Play begets personality, essentially. Personality and identity. How a child plays pushes him/her into who he/she is going to be. That is why we engender (pun intended) another binary into our toys—boy and girl. Even A Christmas Story reinforces this binary—Ralphie seeks out the phallic rifle and rejects the specifically feminine-identified pink bunny suit. His open crying (feminine) is followed by deliberate violence (masculine).

(I noticed the other day the cut from the toilet to the pot on the stove, “from the pot to the pot.” Bob Clark admits in the commentary that this cut was not on purpose, but he often takes credit for it.

Any movie that is not about gender will generally choose not to blur gender lines. Unless, of course, it works for laughs.

(Gender will probably come up again tomorrow.)

Pinto and Nemorin continue:

When children enter the play world of The Elf on the Shelf, they accept a series of practices and rules associated with the larger story. This, of course, is not unique to The Elf on the Shelf. Many children’s games, including board games [Monopoly, for example] and video games, require children to participate while following a prescribed set of rules. The difference, however, is that in other games, the child role-plays a character, or the child imagines herself within a play-world of the game, but the role play does not enter the child’s real world as part of the game. As well, in most games, the time of play is delineated (while the game goes on), and the play to which the rules apply typically does not overlap with the child’s real world.

Elf on the Shelf presents a unique (and prescriptive) form of play that blurs the distinction between play time and real life.

They go on, but I want to diverge from Pinto and Nemorin because, I would argue, Christmas was already about blurring that distinction. Parents deliberately lie to their children about a magical old man and his elves (I won’t take this too far in suggesting God and the angels serve the same purpose... except inasmuch as I just have) are watching and weighing and will offer reward or... well, not punishment. Coal, I suppose, in the stocking. No Krampus in the modern lore to punish the naughty children. No Billy from Silent Night, Deadly Night to kill whoever is naughty (though other slasher film villains do continue that tradition throughout the rest of the year). My point is that Christmas itself serves the purpose that Pinto and Nemorin are putting on the Elf on the Shelf. Christmas—Santa Claus—already puts upon our children the idea that they are being watched. And, it makes them okay with it. We want them to not only believe in someone keeping track of what they are doing but to be glad for it. We want them to look forward to waiting in line to meet him as the year comes to an end, to look forward to the idea of him climbing down the chimney into our houses while we sleep.

Or... maybe we expect that our children are smart enough to tell the difference. No one is coming down the chimney. No one is watching you at all moments. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or whatever else you’re doing online—these are choices, not invasions of privacy.

Works Cited

Black, R.E.G. (2014). From Charioteer Myth to Shoulder Angel: A Rhetorical Look at Our Divided Soul. Colloquy 10, 36-49.

Holley, P. (2014, December 16). The Elf on the Shelf is preparing your child to live in a future police state, professor warns. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2014/12/16/the-elf-on-the-shelf-is-preparing-your-child-to-live-in-a-future-police-state-professor-says/

Pinto, L. & Nemorin, S. (2014, December 1). Who’s the Boss? “The Elf on the Shelf” and the normalization of surveillance. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/whos-boss


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